America's Regional Accents, Holding Fast
ALEX CHADWICK, host:
You know, Madeleine, I used to be a reporter in Maine. Ah yeah, I was. In this country, accents - how we pronounce words - says as much about us sometimes as the words we actually choose to speak. And that's what writer Kevin Arnovitz learned earlier this month when he drove his cahh down from L.A. to Anaheim for a convention of academics to study regional dialects.
And here is Kevin's report.
KEVIN ARNOVITZ: Not five minutes after I arrive at the American Dialect Society's annual meeting, Professor Mary Ellen Garcia of the University of Texas at San Antonio asks:
Dr. MARY ELLEN GARCIA (University of Texas, San Antonio): I'm wondering if you can say for me what that implement you use to write with, that uses ink?
ARNOVITZ: I use a pin.
Dr. GARCIA: Ah-ha.
ARNOVITZ: As someone who responds to that question with pin rather than pen, I have one of the classic markers of what's referred as Southern American English - which is different than, say, North Central American English. My pin-pen merger can tell a sociolinguist like Garcia a lot about me.
Dr. GARCIA: Certainly, accent has a great deal to do with your identity. You went away from the Southern and you embraced this, what I call generic.
Unidentified Man: This paper focuses on how...
ARNOVITZ: While a lot of the conference deals with technical questions - whether back vowels are moving forward in this region or that - much of the discussion here concerns what could be learned about Americans by evaluating the very specifics of their speech.
Mr. DOUG BIGHAM (Graduate Student, University of Texas): The impact of contact from one dialect to another.
ARNOVITZ: That's Doug Bigham, a 27-year-old grad student from University of Texas, though he spends most of his time in his native Southern Illinois researching the speech of 18- to 21-year-olds. When Bigham got to Southern Illinois University as an undergrad, he became fascinated by the cultural clash between kids from Chicago and down-state Illinois. There were obvious phonetic differences, but what was most interesting to Bigham was how different kids expressed their attitudes through their speech and why.
Mr. BIGHAM: When these kids meet up with kids from Chicago who have a very different dialect from them, do they change the way they speak? Do the Chicago kids change the way they speak?
Professor ROB PODESVA (Linguistics, Georgetown University): We're interested in how people assemble linguistic features in order to build an identity.
ARNOVITZ: This is Rob Podesva, an assistant professor of linguistics at Georgetown University.
Prof. PODESVA: And this identity can comprise many different categories, things like gender, race, sexuality, age, the region from (unintelligible).
ARNOVITZ: Podesva and a group of colleagues garnered one of the conference's bigger audiences for their presentation, "Multiple Features, Multiple Identities: A Socio-phonetic Profile of Condoleezza Rice." Why Rice?
Prof. PODESVA: She's a public figure, and there's a lot of data available of her speech.
ARNOVITZ: Rice's diverse biographical profile offers a sociolinguist like Podesva an ideal case study. She grew up in Alabama, moved to Denver as a teen-ager, and spent most of her adult life in California. She's also African-American, an academic, a classically trained musician and now, as secretary of state, one of the most powerful women in the world.
Secretary CONDOLEEZZA RICE (United States State Department): But I'm especially pleased to be here in San Francisco today.
ARNOVITZ: Podesva's team took a speech of Rice's.
Sec. RICE: Not just because it's down the road from...
ARNOVITZ: And performed an acoustic analysis of her linguistic patterns, homing in on the smallest of details - for instance, the way she says the word because.
Sec. RICE: ...but because this great city has played an important role...
PODESVA: We isolate each one of those words, and then we can make a measurement of how long that vowel lasts, and we can measure various things in that vowel that will tell us whether it's an uh - like the way you just said because - or an aw in the way that Condoleezza uses it sometimes.
ARNOVITZ: My because varies from Rice's because she is using what Podesva calls hyperstandard pronunciation.
PODESVA: Sometimes these, what we call hyperstandard features, are used by speakers in order to construct themselves as competent or intelligent, learned.
ARNOVITZ: According to Podesva, Rice can be overheard using the more standard Southern because in more informal contexts, just as a native Southerner might use one set of phonetic features when constructing a story for public radio and an entirely different set of pronunciations when he's watching a ball game with his grandfather back in Charleston.
(Soundbite of music)
CHADWICK: That report from writer and Slate contributor Kevin Arnovitz.
MADELEINE BRAND, host:
(Soundbite of laughter)
CHADWICK: More to come on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.
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